Companies bet on AI to track social distancing, limit liability

Companies bet on AI to track social distancing, limit liability
People ride a subway with social distancing signs on the floor. Reuters Women practicing social distancing in a subway train in Milan. (AP)
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Updated 28 April 2020

Companies bet on AI to track social distancing, limit liability

Companies bet on AI to track social distancing, limit liability

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA: Stores and workplaces eager to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus are equipping existing security cameras with artificial intelligence software that can track compliance with health guidelines including social distancing and mask-wearing.

Several companies said the software will be crucial to staying open as concerns about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, persist around the world. It will allow them to show not only workers and customers, but also insurers and regulators, that they are monitoring and enforcing safe practices.

“The last thing we want is for the governor to shut all our projects down because no one is behaving,” said Jen Suerth, vice president at Chicago-based Pepper Construction, which introduced software from SmartVid.io this month to detect workers grouping at an Oracle Corp. project in Deerfield, Illinois.

Samarth Diamond plans to deploy AI from Glimpse Analytics as soon as its polishing factory reopens in Gujarat, India, while two Michigan shopping centers owned by RPT Realty will have distancing tracking from RE Insight in two weeks.

Buyers expect the technology will work because they already have used similar tools to profile shoppers entering stores and find helmet scofflaws on construction sites.

But some technology consultants that advise retailers and office landlords have cautioned clients against introducing new technology at a chaotic time and investing in tools that may be needed only for a period of months. Privacy activists concerned about increasingly detailed tracking of people also are urging businesses to limit use of the AI to the pandemic.

“The question becomes whether the tech remains after the public health problem goes away, and that is the real privacy fear,” said Al Gidari, a privacy expert at Stanford Law School. “Video in the store today to ensure social distancing remains to identify shoplifters tomorrow.”

Reuters spoke with 16 video analytics companies, many of them startups with a few million dollars in annual revenue, that have added offerings because of the coronavirus. Their systems can be set to produce daily reports, which site managers can use to correct recurring problems and document compliance.

Most work on a branch of AI technology known as computer or machine vision in which algorithms are trained on image libraries to identify objects with confidence of 80 percent or higher.

Several customers said the technology, which can cost $1,000 or more annually to analyze data from a handful of off-the-shelf video cameras, is cheaper than dedicating staff to standing guard. It also can be safer, as some guards enforcing distancing have clashed with people protesting safety measures, they said.

Pepper Construction’s Suerth said its SmartVid system has not flagged crowding issues yet because staffing has been limited. But Suerth said that as more crews arrive, the company will look at trends to issue reminders at “toolbox talks.”

“It’s another set of eyes on the site,” Suerth said, adding that software is less prone to mistakes than people and the “accuracy we’re seeing is really high.”

Samarth Diamond manager Parth Patel said he could adjust procedures when the software identifies spots where his 4,000 workers are clumping together in busy areas. People tagged as not having masks quickly would be offered one by a team reviewing camera feeds, Patel said.

“It will surely be helpful for the safety of employees and their comfort level, and it will be helpful to show it to authorities that we are adhering” to regulations, Patel said.

Patel said he has confidence in the algorithms after his family successfully used computer vision last year at supermarkets it owns to count female shoppers and decide where to stock a new line of dresses.


Oil prices rise as market awaits deal output deal

Updated 03 December 2020

Oil prices rise as market awaits deal output deal

Oil prices rise as market awaits deal output deal
  • OPEC and its allies create uncertainty with two-day delay to meeting to decide whether to increase production

LONDON: Oil prices rose on Wednesday as the market awaited a pact from producers on output, which many traders expect will continue to be reined in, and Britain’s approval of a COVID-19 vaccine gave hopes for a demand recovery a boost.

Prices were hit earlier by a surprise build in oil inventories in the US and as OPEC and its allies created uncertainty with a two-day delay to a formal meeting to decide whether to increase production in January.

Brent crude oil futures were up 1.9 percent at $48.31 in late afternoon trade in London, while West Texas Intermediate crude was also up about 2 percent to $45.46.

Industry data from the American Petroleum Institute showed US crude inventories rose by 4.1 million barrels last week, compared with analysts’ expectations in a Reuters poll for a draw of 2.4 million barrels.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia and other allies, a group known as OPEC+, postponed talks on next year’s oil output policy to Thursday from Tuesday, according to sources.

The group this year imposed production cuts of 7.7 million barrels per day (bpd) as the coronavirus pandemic hit fuel demand.

It had been widely expected to roll those reductions over into January-March 2021 amid spikes in COVID-19 cases.

But the UAE said this week that even though it could support a rollover, it would struggle to continue with the same deep output reductions into 2021.

“Energy markets will remain on edge until OPEC+ gets past tomorrow’s meeting. Oil prices should continue to have underlying support as vaccine makers announce start dates for beginning immunizations,” he added.

Britain on Wednesday became the first western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, jumping ahead of the US and the EU in what may be a first step toward a return to normal life and boost to oil consumption.